As many have asked about my time in the theological seminary, I share this reflection:
I was the last one in our family to see my dad. He was on the way out for the evening and just as I had always done countless times before, I was ready to tag along. Except this time, he asked me to stay home. Of course this didn’t make sense and as a six year old boy, I was not too happy about it. I had my own plans and snuck into the backseat of the car anyway. My dad didn’t see me hiding in the back and as he was almost out the driveway, I was proud of myself for pulling it off. That is until I heard the screams of my aunt chasing my dad down to tell me I was hiding in the backseat. I was mad she told on me as my dad asked me to get out of the car. I went back inside upset that I couldn’t come with him. That night, my dad was assassinated by a communist hit squad.
It wasn't lost on me that I felt my life was spared that day. I’ve since thanked my aunt for saving me from that tragic evening. Growing up, I’ve always felt that I was given a second chance and that I did not want to waste this life I was given. I remember our family pastor telling me that, “God is the father to the fatherless and the protector of widows.” For me, as a son and a brother trying to navigate life without my dad, this began my own personal journey of faith as I found refuge in these words.
I had hoped to follow along in my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and continue the tradition of military service. I received a 4 year scholarship from the Air Force and nominations to the service academies. However, I was told that my citizenship was an issue as I did not have my certificate of citizenship and with high school graduation looming, there was not much I could do. With the citizenship process taking years and me being essentially unable to go, I wondered if this was simply a sign that the military was not my path. (Had I entered the military at that time, my graduating class would have been one of the first deployed at the start of the War on Terror. A part of me is grateful that I do not carry that burden on my conscience that many of our veterans bear after experiencing the realities of war.)
Instead, I started school at our local community college before transferring to the university. As I sat with my advisor asking me about my major, there was one burning question that I had, “What was wrong with this world and what can I do to fix it?” I thought I could find answers in my two majors of economics and political science and I enjoyed learning about different systems and theories.
Then 9/11 happened. It was my last semester of college and I sat there watching these planes crash into the World Trade Center over and over again on the news. I walked away thinking what could I do to help? What could I do to prevent something like this from happening again? What could I do against the Islamophobia, the targeting of people that looked like me, and the hate that was gripping our nation? I graduated college without clear answers to all these questions.
I planned on going to law school after college on the encouragement of my professor who appreciated my interest in the law. I moved to the west coast early waiting to hear back from the law schools I applied to. It was here that I first met two young people who stopped me on the street and asked for help with a survey they were doing. Being around the same age, I was happy to oblige. They asked me my thoughts on what we could do to break down barriers between cultures and religions. It was an interesting question and having just graduated, I felt I could give an educated answer. They invited me to a community service project that weekend and being new to the area, I was happy to do something in the community and I’ve always enjoyed service work.
This began my involvement with members of the Unification Movement and I would later find out that it was part of their community outreach activities. I continued with the community service work since I enjoyed planting trees in urban neighborhoods, creating community gardens, and helping tutor high school students who could barely read at a 5th grade level. I was comfortable in my own faith as a Catholic and for the record, I still consider myself a Filipino Catholic and will die Catholic unless I get excommunicated by the pope. But at the time, I was intrigued by their concept of service as a path to peace through their non-profit organization, Service for Peace. The concept was novel to me as the organization held various inter-religious dialogues and brought faith leaders together in Oakland to work towards ending the violence destroying their communities. I came to understand the power that church leaders had over their congregations as many of the youth were willing to listen to their pastors before they listened to authorities.
That summer, I was asked to lead the “Summer of Service” work in Oakland by Service for Peace in partnership with the city and various churches. It was an exhilarating experience as hundreds of volunteers completed nearly 2000 service hours. We painted schools, cleaned up parks, and helped other youth programs throughout the city. For me, I could see first hand how service was transforming not only the community but the participants as well. It did give me hope that if this could work in Oakland, this may work in other places too.
On the other hand, the more I worked with members of the Unification Movement, the more I understood its connection to the Unification Church and the controversy in the 70s and 80s surrounding its founder. Officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the Unification Church’s history in the US has been controversial. Being too young to know more about it, I relied on information I found online or from listening to comments from strangers. I understood the negativity and weighed it against my own experience working with its members and the impact in the community we were making. I did not believe I was joining another church or religion but cared more about what I could do to make the community better. As the war in Iraq waged on, I thought that this would be my contribution to peace instead.
The next year, I was asked to lead community service efforts in Israel/Palestine under their Middle East Peace Initiative. For nearly 3 months I stayed in the Holy Land and it was an incredible experience working with different religious leaders and community groups. We held community service projects in East Jerusalem and in schools in both Arab, Jewish, and Christian neighborhoods. I saw communities coming together and I was starting to believe that our work could make an impact towards peace here. Praying at the Wailing Wall, the Al Aqsa Mosque, and even at the site where Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead were experiences that gave me hope that peace was possible.
I was able to return a few years later under a sports program that used soccer to bring these communities together. To see kids from Arab and Jewish neighborhoods who started with distrust towards each other begin to play together, I was hopeful that they would remember this moment. I still think of them as they would be in their 20s by now and wonder if they would have become jaded by their military service or if they lost a family member to the fighting. I was even more intrigued by the possibility of bringing such a model to the Philippines where my grandfather and father long fought Muslim extremists and separatists.
This experience and this hope were what brought me to the Unification Theological Seminary. Although founded by the Unification Church, it was billed as an interfaith and inter-religious seminary and had a concentration on peace building that I was particularly interested in. My seminary class included students from 19 different countries and from various faith backgrounds. My professors were theologians and scholars in their own religious faiths. My two years spent on the campus there in upstate New York are memories that I still look fondly upon. To be able to learn more about each other’s cultures and beliefs from all of my classmates has helped me become a better person, more understanding of the world around me, and to see the role that faith and religion can play towards peace instead of being used as vehicles for war and conflict.
After graduation, I decided to step away from working with the Unification Church as I did not agree with many of its values towards the LGBTQ community and especially seeing how many of their members lived impoverished, difficult lives while those at the top of its leadership did not. I still have friends whose parents are members of the church and they live every day, normal lives just like you and me.
I understand and appreciate the role that faith and religion play in people's lives but I believe that people should not be consumed by it. Even more, we should be wary of those that seek to exploit others in the name of religion for their own benefit. For me, religion is simply a man-made construct. What you do with your faith and how you treat others and the world we live in, that’s what’s more important to me. We won’t know for sure what happens at the end until we get there but it takes me back full circle; to that 6 year old boy trying to figure out what to do with his second chance at life. My answer is to simply make the most of the life and the time you have now, don't waste it. What’s wrong with this world and what can I do to fix it? It begins with you, that’s where peace really starts.